Francis J. Kelly was born in Dungannon, County Tyrone, in 1933. He received the gold medal for his primary school teacher training at St Patrick’s College Drumcondra and, after completing his BA and HDip, taught Latin and English at Saint Michael’s College, Dublin for over 30 years. His new book of poetry, Et Ego in Arcadia, was published in November 2013.
Walking the Land
He loved me to walk the land with him
Down across the marshy bottoms in silence,
And with one accurate glance could tell
A cow or sheep was missing or hidden
From view a while; I could feel the pride
Inside, ancestral, territorial, and how his people
Saved this sacred land through the lean years,
So starkly visible in the stony walls and houses
Broken and deserted, down the famine times; here
Was heritage, creation, arena for human sweat
And kinship, a silent, holy and lonely
Place that men had died for and still held
Deeply, every whispering corner of hawthorn,
Dandelions and daisies; ‘next year the
Grants for drainage will do well and all
The stones will be gathered’; after milking
I watched him outside the local chapel
Surrounded by tall gaunt well-dressed men
Joking, but ever ready for the week ahead,
Like an ancient Pharaoh, whose charioteers
Were eager for the daily challenge; dreams
Of pyramids, stores of grain, perhaps
A little more gold than the year before,
They would work the wilderness into wealth again.
Breaking the Ice in Baldoyle
When first I saw it on a foggy morn
Bleak, deserted, silent with only seagull scream
Above the rotting seaweed, this was my forlorn
And isolated Elba for one who in the dream
Would never be Napoleon; in early teens
It seemed desperate, remote, save for cemeteries
And funeral bells, where handshakes were the means
Of locking up the heart and smiles cease
With all worldly warmth, where affection
Could be dangerous and fun a frivolous waste
Of holy time; breaking the ice with no reflection,
For mirrors marked the vanity where
face Could see no inner ecstasy: so I simply shaved
Ascetically, realising monks were meant to be enslaved.
Who were hanged on that Gallows Hill?
Their grim ghosts haunted my childhood
And the old iron gates lock me in still
With the graveyard pine-trees of a whispering wood.
Often at night on the frightened road home
Chains were clanging upon black boughs
And some said they saw there, things of bone
Like long buried skulls where graze the cows.
Especially wild on windy nights
Long shadows shook bony fists at me
And I fled in terror from such sights
Staring out from behind each cursed tree.
My father said priests hung there
And those who taught the Gaelic tongue,
Yet I never stopped to say a prayer
For the tortured ones who lost and won.
Who were hanged on the Gallows Hill?
Only the bodies of bold Irish men,
And who is afraid to look their fill
Only children who fear again and again.
So I’ll say a prayer for the patriots there
Who held the heritage of all holy men
Safe for us all, proud to declare
Our ancestral inheritance to the end.
Discoveries and Distance
Suddenly young again. Sitting idly on sandstone walls.
Surrounded always by a sea of greenery. Rough hedges
Everywhere. Bushes that determine and define who calls
This or that their own. This is ancient Tyrone
And the Earls are gone. Blood runs deep
Despite the unspoken years. We hold our own
Forever close within. All is almost well again
And things forgiven cancel out the roar and shout
Of festive days. Both sides in sun and rain
Love this land. Shared by Irish of by Planter, still
Strong faith has forged fellowship and understanding
Of the ways things were. The years mellow and distil
What devilry deformed the hearts of all; only now,
Scarecrows of the past parade their ridiculous hate,
But even their own pity the blindness and its row
With bygone buried bones; games, customs, trade
And even religious reach out. To-day, living
Has educated and set free some things all made
In the generous heart; far-off the silent Sperrins
Keep their secrets and stand ready to salute
In the generations, old and new, whatever earns
The blessed flag of peace. Just now there are games
To be played and innocent fun to be enjoyed;
Man has invaded the moon. Everything seems the same.